Posted by Thomas Sittler
on Tuesday, April 21, 2015
I began to think about effective altruism a few years ago when I read Poor Economics, a book by two MIT economists on “the surprising truth about life on less than one dollar a day”. I loved the book, which teems with insight about what drives the economic lives of the world’s poorest people, and contains a lot of surprising evidence about the best policies to improve their lives. (Why, for instance, do the poor borrow in order to save? Read the book.) But I read many interesting books like these, and at the time it seemed to be just another one, like a TED talk watched in fascination only to be quickly forgotten. In fact though, Poor Economics changed my life.
The most important thing the book probably did was to humanize the global poor, turning them from an abstraction into real people I could relate to. For example, whether you lead a privileged life in the rich west or are struggling on less than $1 a day in sub-saharan Africa, procrastination is a real hurdle to reaching your goals. It’s just that we in the rich world have developed so many devices to nudge us in the right direction: compulsory vaccinations, automatic enrollment to 401(k)s, etc. We don’t even have to think about these, whereas the global poor are forced to constantly exercise immense self-control to be able to plan for the future. Poor people face a variety of issues that go far beyond lack of food, and often develop schemes of striking ingenuity to work around the inadequacy of government-provided services. The book compiles the results of a host of randomized controlled trials, (very rigorous evaluations of social policies) to show how much poor people’s lives can be improved with things like free bednets or deworming pills.
I realized that there are people just like me, who, by the lottery of birth, find themselves facing massive hardships. We in the rich world have the power to alleviate these hardships.
This idea had been planted in my mind by Poor Economics, but it was when I read Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save that the full force of it came into focus. All the issues of western politics, let alone my personal life, seemed to pale in comparison to the extreme salience of one fact: a life can be saved for trifling amounts of money, probably less than a thousand dollars.
What could I do? Peter Singer suggests that we pledge some portion of our income to the most effective causes. But as a student, I have no income to speak of. Donating some of my money would probably make me feel good, but the impact would be so tiny as to hardly matter. I decided that the most effective thing I could do would be to use my time to make sure other, richer people, do more donating. I bought a small box of copies of Peter Singer’s book and started giving them out to strategically selected targets. In December, I began doing some volunteer work for The Life You Can Save, helping them develop the impact calculator. This summer, I’ll be spending some time at Giving What We Can.
The picture above is of me running the Paris half-marathon in a Life You Can Save T-Shirt that I made. Wearing the T-Shirt was almost certainly very low-impact. But I was proud to cross the finish line supporting a charity like this one. The impact on me was high.